Thursday, February 27, 2014

Poverty Safari

Last week, this blog post article about voluntourism started making the rounds on Facebook. In a very short post, the blogger suggests that sometimes volunteers to a foreign country (aka “voluntourist”) don’t end up doing a lot of “helping.” She asks Westerners, especially white folk, to examine any underlying assumptions and motives of going to a developing nation.  There’s nothing wrong with that; a little introspection is good for everyone.

Then, as happens in the blogosphere, another post popped up. This author pointed out that we don’t need to discourage Western people in caring about other parts of the world. Instead of calling out the problems, we should come up with solutions that keep people hopeful, interested, engaged. Great post, but then, no solutions are offered. I can see why: because it’s hard.

Admittedly, voluntourism is not my favorite thing, mostly because I feel it sometimes fetishizes poverty as something to ‘experience’ (and then go on safari).  Being honest, I did one of these tours myself when I was first getting started. I wanted to see Africa, but was too afraid to go alone. I strongly believe the model of the organization with whom I traveled, so I’m hopeful we did do some good. But I make no pretense: I got a whole lot more out of the experience than the village did.

The truth is, most people (ahem; me) are just muddling through the best way they know how, learning as they go. Those that have an interest in going to far flung places also have a lot of airplane time to feel guilty about our ‘efficacy’ (as well as our ‘carbon footprint’). In keeping with that spirit, I’m throwing my own blogpost into the mix. Here are my suggested “solutions” or rather “muddlings”:

Recognize the limits of volunteering: Let’s be frank - volunteering (free labor) even at home can be a hit or miss experience for both the volunteerer and the voluntaker. Speaking as someone who is a lifelong volunteer (at home and abroad) and has spent significant time managing them (at home and abroad) – it can suck, for a lot of different reasons.  Poor communication, poor planning, poor expectation setting on all sides – oftentimes leads a person to walk away feeling underutilized, baffled and perhaps, a little hurt. I once spent five gorgeous Monday evenings during the spring, sitting at a table in the children’s library, trying to get kids to sign up for the summer reading program. SNORE. I also once had a team of bee keeping volunteers in East Timor yell at me because there had been an assassination attempt on the President during their trip and they had to be in lockdown. Eek. Throw jet lag, dengue fever and cultural differences into the mix and you’ve got a (bee’s) nest.

Realize that You are not the Center of the Universe: I stumbled across this lesson as a young manager, inserting myself into situations where I thought I was responsible for everything, that I had to DO something about everything RIGHT NOW. Unfortunately, it came off as hubris (I was actually told this by my boss. It was humiliating. She was right.) So goes the same in volunteering overseas. I became a better manager when I restrained a bit longer from sending emails, listened a bit more, and stepped back from the equation. I found out that – 9 times out of 10 –what was required of me was not what I would’ve initially guessed.

The first blogger hit the nail on the head when she wrote “…My presence is not the godsend I was coached by non-profits, documentaries, and service programs to believe it would be.”  I found this interesting, in one part the idea of being “coached” to be a godsend, and the other, the choice to believe it. I feel like we would all do well to pick a different choice.

I know, I know. You are a very special unicorn.  You care so much that you flew ALL THE WAY TO AFRICA to help these people. But to others – especially in a temporary assignment – you may be one of fifty volunteers they see that month. Here in Malawi, when I ride my bike around town, kids run after me yelling “Give me money!” Their context is that foreign people are walking cash machines. Nothing takes more wind out of your helpful sales than that. The communities that one enters will be there long after you vanish. The people and social fabric will continue. You are merely a thread. If you remove ego and realize this, then volunteering becomes just an act of living, of service, of being human. 

It’s a lot easier than trying to “save” a community all on your own, don’t you think?

Be realistic and give yourself a break. It’s not all on You. When I was one of those voluntourists, I can tell you I didn’t do a whole lot but chase kids around a yard and mix cement. I spent ten years feel terrible that I didn’t do it “better” or have "more impact". But the face of the matter is, you'll never know what impact you actually have on a person. It has taken me much longer to realize that the bigger picture:  Its fine to be a unicorn in your own mind, but don’t be an ass to everyone else.

Get Frustrated: Even those with special skill sets – doctors, nurses, engineers, art history majors – they feel frustrated and useless from time to time. I can’t say that I love it when I get frustrated, but I know in some ways it’s a good sign: it means I still care.  Fail. Get up. Try again. Do better.

Don’t Give Up: Development is personal. Start with yourself. Start with your sphere, and what you know about. Hold a door open for someone, give money in the [insert your favorite organizations here]. Bake cookies and give them away. Don’t yell at that jerk driver that cut you off. In fact, don’t be that jerk. Fail. Get up. Try again. Do better.

Consider giving money to the Professionals:  There are any number of wonderful western and non-western based organizations that aim to assist in the developing world. It’s worth pointing out though, we don’t always get it right, either. In fact, I’m embarrassed by some of the things I’ve heard of (World Toilet Day (which is actually kind of funny), the Million T-shirt campaign, or any of these). But there have been some truly awesome things too (the Ushahidi platform, the Grameen Bank). Money counts as helping, too.

That's all I have. Time for more muddling.

PS It’s not my intent to side step the race conversation started in the first blog. However, much like the second blogger, I felt like the race piece was tangential to the basic message: being privileged doesn’t make you a more qualified “helper.” There are oh so many things to say about this, but in a nutshell: take stock of your biases, and get on with being the best person you can be today. Right now.

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